Sunday August 19, 2012

While the final major of the season is history, there is still much to look forward to over the next six weeks, culminating in arguably golf's most exciting and emotional event, the Ryder Cup, at Medinah Country Club in suburban Chicago.

Following this week's Wyndham Championship -- the last chance for players to make the top 125 and qualify for the first of four FedEx Cup playoff events -- the real fun begins with The Barclays at Bethpage Black on Long Island.

Even the first two days hold intrigue. Points leader Tiger Woods will be paired with PGA Championship winner Rory McIlroy, No. 2 in points. Amazingly, it will be the first time the two superstars have played together in a tour event.

Sunday's eight-shot margin of victory -- McIlroy has won his two majors by a combined 16, and at a younger age than Woods -- brings back memories of Tiger's own one-sided major victories and confirms that McIlroy is the real deal, and then some.

Considering Woods' weekend woes in the majors, it will be interesting to see if playing with the young man many see as his successor will produce great golf or more inconsistent play.

Over the following two weeks, at the Deutsche Bank Championship at TPC Boston in Norton and BMW Championship at Crooked Stick in Carmel, Ind., the field will be whittled down to the top 30 for the Tour Championship at East Lake in Atlanta.

Last year's spectacular finish -- with Bill Haas hitting a miraculous shot out of the water to clinch the title -- will be hard to beat, but if Tiger and Rory play well over the first three events, we could see a true showdown in Atlanta. We can only hope.

And then there's the Ryder Cup. Let's face it, the recent history for the U.S. is ugly. The Europeans have won four of the last five meetings, the most recent a tense 141 2-131 2 squeaker at Celtic Manor in Wales.

Back on home soil, one would expect the Americans to have a great chance. However, lest we forget, the Euros waxed the U.S. at Oakland Hills (181 2-91 2 ) four years ago.

The eight automatic qualifiers for the U.S. team became official after the PGA. I like the mix of Cup newcomers and veterans. There are three first-timers -- U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson, 2011 PGA champion Keegan Bradley and two-time 2011 tour winner Jason Dufner -- but they all look to have the mental makeup and games to deal with Cup pressure and should bring some new enthusiasm to captain Davis Love's squad.

Zach Johnson (two Ryder Cups) and Matt Kuchar (two) offer steady games while Masters champion Bubba Watson (two) brings power, imagination and unpredictability to the squad.

Despite his Hall of Fame credentials, Phil Mickelson is the biggest question mark. Lefty has played mediocre, and worse, since his impressive win in February at Pebble Beach. He has also struggled mightily in the Ryder Cup (11-17-6 record).

Love has four captain's picks and most believe Hunter Mahan, Steve Stricker and Jim Furyk will be three of them. Mahan (3-2-3 in two Ryder Cups) has slumped since starting the year brilliantly while Stricker (3-2-2 in two cups) is as solid as a rock and remains a short-game magician. Furyk's recent late meltdowns at the Bridgestone and U.S. Open are concerning, especially when combined with his 8-15-4 Ryder Cup record.

While poor FedEx Cup play by the above could change Love's thinking, it's likely that Rickie Fowler, Brandt Snedeker, Bo Van Pelt and possibly Dustin Johnson and Haas are in the hunt for the final spot. Fowler would be the popular pick, but Van Pelt is playing the best and Snedeker is a dazzling putter, always a big plus in the Cup format.

For Europe, the automatic qualifiers aren't official until after next week's Johnnie Walker Championship. Ten players -- five off the European points list and the top five on the world points list not in the top five on the European list -- make the team, with captain Jose Maria Olazabal getting two captain's picks.

As of today the team would be McIlroy, Justin Rose, Graeme McDowell, Paul Lawrie and Francesco Molinari (European points list) and Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Peter Hanson, Martin Kaymer and Ian Poulter (world points list).

Spain's Sergio Garcia would almost certainly be one of Olazabal's picks. He missed out last time, but he lives for the Ryder Cup (14-6-2 record) and is playing much better than two years ago. Most believe the captain's other pick would either be Padraig Harrington or Nicolas Colsaerts, a long-hitter on the rise.

Based on the numbers, the Europeans again rate the favorite's role. Adding Garcia to the current top-10 point earners, the Euros have a combined 60-32-18 Ryder Cup record. Combining the Amer icans' automatic qualifiers and most likely three additions, the U.S. team is 42-55-19.

In the end, however, past history should matter little. The outcome will come down to which captain can find the right combinations and who makes the clutch putts at the right time. In recent years, that's been Europe.

This time? Who knows? That's why they play the matches. Can't wait!